Engaging the Community in Smart Growth: PB Eco-District aims to become nationally certified

As one of 13 registered eco-districts in North America with a long list of achievements in its short four-year existence, the Pacific Beach Eco-District seeks to access more resources to tackle bigger issues by becoming fully certified.

Tasked with finding equitable and sustainable means of community development that protect the environment and reduce emissions contributing to climate change, the PB Eco-District will have plenty of opportunities to expand its role this year, especially with the construction of a Mid-Coast Trolley station at nearby Balboa Avenue.

Kristen Victor, a PB Eco-District coordinator, updated the PB Town Council on her group’s upcoming projects at its January meeting, but in taking the audience’s feedback, she was looking for answers as much as providing them.

“The PB Eco-District actually brings everyone together,” she said. “92109 (PB’s ZIP code) is the largest revenue producing ZIP code in the City of San Diego. We get a lot of visitors, we have a lot of businesses, the (marine) animals, plants, the natural environment, the ocean and the bays. Those are all part of our eco-system here in PB and it’s what the Eco-District is working toward improving.”

Staffed and funded by Beautiful PB, the local non-profit charity consisting of residents, property owners and businesses, the PB Eco-District works with 22 other community organizations to gather input and draw up plans, including the Town Council.

During her presentation, Victor cataloged the Eco-District’s numerous accomplishments, such as PB Pathways, that connects the neighborhood with pedestrian and bike routes; PB Murals, which promotes public art; PB Urban Agriculture, which helped launched the new community garden at St. Andrews; and an eco-friendly checklist for new developments used by the PB Planning Group and since adapted by San Diego’s Climate Action Plan.

When Victor discussed future challenges however, the rubber met the road as local residents offered their viewpoints and even disputed some of PB Eco-District’s goals.

The flip-side

Pointing to higher density buildings as a solution to the affordable housing crisis, Eve Anderson of the PB Planning Group bristled when the concept was coupled with decreasing automobile use, saying that reducing parking requirements on new buildings adds to present problems, whatever benefits they might have in the future.

“When it comes to the cars and the parking, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” said Anderson. “This is something that may very well work in five years. Five years earlier, we didn’t have Uber and it has changed the DUI statistics. But we need to work with what we have right now.”

Pointing to State of the City address and sitting on one of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s advisory boards, Victor countered that the goal is not merely to consider an imaginary future, but to react to concrete changes already taking place.

“The Mayor is reducing parking and he’s increasing density,” she said. “So we can continue to ignore it if we want to, but it’s going to happen with or without us. Times are shifting and we need to figure out how to house and move people around. Population is increasing. It’s not happening in five years. It’s happening right now ... And so I think, through the Eco-District, it’s an opportunity to discuss, how do we do this?”

With a high priority on neighborhood mobility and access, Victor discussed the Eco-District’s numerous studies on traffic, including the annual PB Count, which produces a snapshot of vehicle, bike and pedestrian use along Cass Street at numerous intersections on a day in August.

Last year’s results showed that 21 percent of all traffic at the intersection of Cass Street and Garnet Avenue was pedestrian as compared to the national average of 11 percent indicating “high walkability.”

Victor focused that discussion on reducing congestion on Garnet Avenue, suggesting that the major business thoroughfare have more pedestrians — and thereby shoppers — by diverting more vehicles, especially buses, to nearby Grand Avenue and Felspar Street, which already support other bus routes.

Ryoko Daunoras noted that diverting buses to promote walking on Garnet doesn’t end the congestion but merely transfers it.

“My husband and I have to drive on Felspar every day, where the MTS (Metropolitan Transit System) bus No. 27 goes through,” she said. “Over there, there’s diagonal parking on both sides and when the No. 27 goes through, there’s hardly any room to go ... They have to take those parking (spots) away if we want more buses to go through because right now, we don’t have enough room to drive through there.”

PB Eco-District applied for full certification last year, a three-year process that includes formation, designing a specific road map for future actions, and measurement and verification. According to Victor, certification will open doors for her group to meet the community’s needs and their obstacles with better tools.

“[Certification] raises the level of funding-worthy status,” she said. “You can apply for funding in the multi-million dollar range. It gives you access to professionals and experts. You’re sharing successes (with other eco-districts) and are able to integrate them in your community.”

Yet the road to success is impossible unless the community is onboard, Victor argued. While that includes bumps, it’s the key to getting the right direction.

“That is what an eco-district is all about,” she said. “To have those very difficult conversations so we can build consensus that will lead to success.”

WANT TO KNOW MORE? Visit PB Eco-District at beautifulpb.com For more details about eco-districts in general, visit ecodistricts.org

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